Personal and social appropriation of technology

This concept explores how we learn to live with technology. According to Canepa, “appropriation” is concerned with the integration of a technology in a pre-existing working situation, which comprises ends, mental representations, and competencies (Canepa, 2005). That means that the receiver of the new elements takes decisions and re-elaborates the resources in order to accommodate them to a new set of practical, personal and moral values. Appropriation is then a process that affects not only objects but persons as well. The philosopher of technology Langdon Winner says in The whale and the reactor that “What is needed is an interpretation of the ways, both obvious and subtle, in which everyday life is transformed by the mediating role of technical devices” (Winner, 1986, 9). In this interpretation we assume that technology is not only driven by providers, as it were, a sort of external force to which people respond just translating mechanically tool instructions. There are instead commitments we take when we accept the use of a certain device or when we definitively overcome the initial resistance we had to a new electronic equipment. Then we say: “ok, yes, I will use the computer but only in this specific area, only for administrative purposes, or/and managing social networks, or/and watching TV series, or/and reading newspapers, or/and doing academic research, or/and storing pictures…” In any case these reactions represent an intervention in the elements we use, and in general a recreation of the technology too. So consumers are actively paving the way for the modifications the devices will experiment in the near future.

Feria electrónica 2013

Consumer Electronic Show, Las Vegas, 2013 []

Two examples will illustrate the point. The history of mechanical clocks shows how for centuries the priority of artisan manufacture was not precise timekeeping, but meeting the increasing demand for decorative, ornamental and status symbol clocks. First models were, as Landes states, crude instruments, imprecise, and unreliable. And they remained in this situation for at least four hundred years (Landes, 2007, 99). Meanwhile, early production focused on domestic clocks and in big models, the latter installed in city halls and cathedrals. Thanks to astronomical clocks, the community had access to theological information and to the positions of the sun, planets and the moon, as well as to calendar data; they were objects of admiration associated with town achievements. In this sense, the clock became a popular attraction not only for residents but for potential visitors too, and as such it was considered an investment by the local authorities. These interests sparked the increase of clockwork professionals, and this fact had in turn an influence in the improvement of the quality of timepieces. Besides, in those years, clockmakers together with engravers, goldsmiths and enamellers adapted their work to personal requirements and to kings, nobles and wealthy people tastes. The engraving reproduced below shows an interesting picture that, according to our personal interpretation, depicts a gentleman dealing with a clock maker in order to possibly obtain a praiseworthy model of a clock. All these elements determined the fall in prices, and in consequence the improvement of sales.

Clockmaker, 1694 by Marcel Douwe Dekker

Educational technology (see on this blog) provides other examples. Teachers at high schools reinterpreted and extended the original apparatus purposes and instructions revealed in textbooks and in instruments makers’ catalogues. They did so in many different ways: creating new models in collaboration with local makers, designing cabinet halls and museums for teaching purposes, participating in state programs devoted to collecting meteorological and anthropometric data, repairing objects and ordering new ones, using them for transmitting scientific knowledge in social events and fairs, showing them to students in class as visual proofs of perpetual scientific truths or as aids for explanations, and last but not least, suggesting practises in labs and other school premises (e.g. the botanical garden).

The intervention of the educational community in the modification of standardized instructional instruments was particularly noticeable from 1880 on. By those years a part of theorists and teachers pointed out that the main goal of science education was not the admiration of complex artefacts in class sessions, but teaching methodology, inductive processes, and the active participation of pupils in experimental designs. Therefore, objects were not seen as mere illustrations of a firmly established truth or just as a theory in motion, but as part of a research or a constructive procedure. This represented an attempt to transmit and reproduce in classrooms early stages of an investigation, when a person is in a state of mental naivety and is trying to find solutions to practical problems without a predetermined knowledge.

International and local instrument makers then started to modify the principles that had led the construction of the scientific and technical models used so far. From then on the tendency was to make them simple, manipulative, accessible, cheaper, resistant, multifunctional…. World War I marked the end of the “brass and glass” era. The historian of scientific instruments P. Brenni describes properly the changes that took place in the 1920s and 1930s in the following fragment:

Everywhere in Europe, several die-hard physics treatises were abandoned or largely modernised. In the new textbooks, the realistic wood engravings illustrating the instruments in every detail were often substituted by simpler technical schemes […] Instruments as well as their material were changing. An increasing number of modular apparatuses were introduced on the market. They allowed a series of demonstrations and experiments to be performed with a limited number of elements, and in a period of crisis and lack of funding, they were more affordable than the older instruments. High voltage transformers slowly took the place of electrostatic machines and induction coils […] (Brenni, 2011, 310).

New orientations were then a result of the contributions of the “consumers” of educational industries as well as of a reinterpretation of the machine instructions, and in some occasions also with the collaboration of students and their reactions.


Lissajous’ apparatus, Amédée Guillemin, Le monde physique, Paris, 1881-1885. Teacher’s observations in working context.

In general, resistance movements to innovations are not a radical opposition to every kind of technology, but a response to a change in a person or community life. Some cultural approaches to technology mean a selection of what is significant and what is not in the promotion of particular or social values. Sometimes rejection of technology leads to “constructive kinds of appropriation”; in the 19th Century for instance, as M. Hard and A. Jamison put it, it promoted “the British Arts and Crafts movement, with its industrial mobilization of traditional images and techniques, [and] the literary genre of science fiction, with its visionary prognostications reflecting on the human implications of science and technology progress” (1998, 6). In sum, editors of Intellectual Appropriation of Technology recommend not focusing the attention on uncovering dichotomies but on showing “how these dichotomies worked themselves out differently in different national and organizational settings” (Hard and Jamison, 1998, 3). A perspective that in turn means an abandonment of technological deterministic ideas (see the entry “Determinism” on this blog).

References and further readings

BRENNI, P. (2011), “The Evolution of Teaching Instruments and their Use Between 1800 and 1930”, in Peter Heering & Roland Wittje (eds.), Learning by Doing, Stuttgart.

DÍAZ-CANEPA, Carlos (2005), “Transferring Technologies to Developing Countries: A Cognitive and Cultural Approach”, en Stenberg, Robert J. y Preiss, David D. (eds.) Intelligence and Technology. The Impact of Tools on the Nature and Development of Human Activities, Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 159-179.

FARRÉ OLIVÉ, Eduard (2002), ”La decoración del reloj portátil”, Arte y Hora, n. 150H32, Set-Oct, pp. 6-14.

HARD, Mikael and JAMISON, Andrew (eds.) (1998), Intellectual Appropriation of Technology. Discourses on Modernity, 1900-1939. Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press.Franz Steiner Verlag.

LANDES, David S. (1983), Revolution in time. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, (Spanish version: Revolución en el tiempo, Barcelona, Crítica, 2007).

MORUS, Iwan Rhys (1996), “Manufacturing Nature: Science, Technology and Victorian Consumer Culture”, The British Journal for the History of Science. Vol. 29, No. 4, pp. 403-43.

WINNER, Langdon (1986), The Whale and the Reactor, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.
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